Culture Change
23 May 2022
Home arrow Petro-addiction arrow The Anguish of the Age: Emotional Reactions to Collapse
The Anguish of the Age: Emotional Reactions to Collapse PDF Print E-mail
User Rating: / 29
by Robert Jensen   
23 June 2010
Editor's note: this is a chance for reader feedback for an important work in progress.

We live amidst multiple crises -- economic and political, cultural and ecological -- that pose a significant threat to human life as we understand it.

There is no way to be awake to the depth of these crises without an emotional reaction. There is no way to be aware of the pain caused by these systemic failures without some experience of dread, depression, distress.

To be fully alive today is to live with anguish, not for one's own condition in the world but for the condition of the world, for a world that is in collapse.

Though I have felt this for some time I hesitated to talk about it in public, out of fear of being accused of being too negative or dismissed as apocalyptic. But more of us are breaking through that fear, and more than ever it's essential that we face this aspect of our political lives. To talk openly about this anguish should strengthen, not undermine, our commitment to political engagement -- any sensible political program to which we can commit for the long haul has to start with an honest assessment of reality.

Here is how I would summarize our reality: Because of the destructive consequences of human intervention, it is not clear how much longer the planetary ecosystem can sustain human life on this scale. There is no way to make specific predictions, but it's clear that our current path leads to disaster. Examine the data on any crucial issue -- energy, water, soil erosion, climate disruption, chemical contamination, biodiversity -- and the news is bad. Platitudes about "necessity is the mother of invention" express a hollow technological fundamentalism; simply asserting that we want to solve the problems that we have created does not guarantee we can. The fact that we have not taken the first and most obvious step -- moving to a collective life that requires far less energy -- doesn't bode well for the future.

Though anguish over this reality is not limited to the affluence of the industrial world -- where many of us have the time to ponder all this because our material needs are met -- it may be true that those of us living in relative comfort today speak more of this emotional struggle. That doesn't mean that our emotions are illegitimate or that the struggle is self-indulgent; this discussion is not the abandonment of politics but an essential part of fashioning a political project.

I would like help in this process. I've started talking to people close to me about how this feels, but I want to expand my understanding. By using the internet and email, I am limiting the scope of the inquiry to those online, but it's a place to start.

My request is simple: If you think it would help you clarify your understanding of your struggle, send me an account of your reaction to these crises and collapse, in whatever level of detail you like. I am most interested in our emotional states, but any exercise of this type includes an intellectual component; there is no clear line between the analytical and the emotional, between thinking and feeling. An understanding of our emotions is connected to our analysis of the health of the ecosystem, the systems responsible for that condition, and the openings for change.

Because I may draw on this material in public discussions and for writing projects, please let me know how you are willing to have your words used. Your writing could be: (1) "on background," not to be quoted in any forum; (2) "not for attribution," permission to be quoted but not identified; or (3) "on the record," permission to be quoted and identified. If you don't specify, I will assume (2).

My plan is to report back to anyone interested. If you would like to be included on that distribution list, let me know. Please send responses in the body of an email message, not as an attachment, to robertwilliamjensen "at"

Whether or not you write to me, I hope everyone will begin speaking more openly about this aspect of our struggle. If there is to be a decent future, we have to retain our capacity for empathy. Most of us can empathize with those closest to us, and we try to empathize with all people. The next step is to open up to the living world, which requires an ability to feel both the joy and the grief that surrounds us.

[The follow up report "Struggling to be ‘Fully Alive’: Reports on Coping with Anguish" is at">]

* * * * *

Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002).

Comments (16)Add Comment
"getting and spending we lay waste our power..."
people change their light bulbs and think they have done enough.
the biggest step they could take would be to quit driving or cut their driving in half.
fat chance say I.
This makes me angry.
Even people who think they are "environmentalists" bow out on this, or change the conversation when I mention this.
Or they think that because they purchased a hybrid they are head of th game. Do they think that everyone can drive a Prius? It's not a solution.
So, they are NOT helping the situation.
A world designed for the automobile for decades is what has ruined life on this planet.
I throw my hands up in despair, as I ride my electric bike on the congested, noisy, toxic, nerve wracking streets and roads.
People always find an excuse to drive.
myna lee johnstone
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +2
I'm scared, angry and exhilarated.

I have lived my entire life disgusted by how the world around me operates and basically refused to participate as much as possible in this society. I despise money and the entire system that I was born into. Watching the planet being poisoned and destroyed by the mindless consumption of crap and a so called easy life has made me wish I was already dead for years.

I'm angry about the reckless breeding that has gone on in this country with no thought of the future of these children would face, plus I got endless grief from people when I told them I would never have children because of how messed up the world was and this was in the early 80's, guess I was right for once...

Angry at all the people I know who have rolled their eyes at me when I advised them to possibly store enough supplies to get them through a disaster (and I'm talking a couple weeks here not 5 years).
PO'ed because I'll be watching these same people losing there minds once the SHTF for real and I'm sure I will be to blame... (while I'm feeding them)

Exhilarated because I am seeing this system fail. I don't know or really care how things shake out, but if our species continues on I can only hope the ones who go into the future will live with respect for our planet.

Just watching all this fall apart is pretty fascinating and once the net is gone I'll just have to imagine what is happening (if I'm still around that is)
Good luck everybody, this might be years in the making but who really knows? It's raining oil in Louisiana...
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +7
Support The Insanity

Support The Insanity
Surrender To Greed
Pay Fools Taxes Heed Profit's Creeds
Now Look Around You
Smell The Slime And The Stink
Pay All Taxes Promptly?
Or Learn How To Think?

Copyright August 8, 1997 Daniel J. Lavigne


Stop being depressed. Get involved! Fight back! Help spread the word about the Tax Refusal.

Indeed, read all about it!! And . . GET BUSY!

Thank you.

To a safer, saner and more caring world.

To Duty.

Daniel J. Lavigne, Founder
International Humanity House (IHH)
Daniel J. Lavigne
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +1
Or too tired to be angry but still plogging (plodding + blogging) away. Depressed too but thinking that was just me. Maybe not. I used to explain (when depressed by single parenting sans child support) that depression was a logical reaction to living and struggling under depressing conditions. Still true. Eye rolling, yes I get a lot of that too.

I grew up mostly in south Louisiana, not fat from the Gulf Coast, surrounded by bayous, marshland, swamps, intracoastal canal, live oaks draped in Spanish moss, azaleas. NOLA was heartbreaking - now this. Count me in.
Vanessa Vaile
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +0
To Nicky - Right On!!

I feel the same way...whenever I'm in an airport, looking at all the people with small children, babies, etc. I look at them as someone who lives outside of The Matrix, who enters it from time to time, in order to make money and play the sick game within it. "My god, are these people insane?!?!," I think to myself. I actually talked to this one woman on a Southwest (Refugee) Airlines flight, who was with her husband, and three recently born childen. To make a long story short, she was clueless regarding Peak Oil, societal collapse, etc. (except for the biblical version of it, however).

I'm always in airports these days, as I'm on military active duty, not far from Prof. Jensen in San Antonio, TX. I swear though, this is the last time I enter The Matrix, just in order to make big money. I'm getting sick of watching imperial collapse from the inside, as all the military and civilian types I work around are so infatuated with
technology, thinking it will solve all our problems, as we lose in Afghanistan, in the tradition of all the other outside powers that have
killed themselves there. I can't believe I've made it this long, watching non-stop idiocy, the waste of resouces, the complete obliviousness of people I work with. The military is basically the ultimate holdout of people trapped within the Matrix. No wonder it pays so much these days!

I hope to contribute to Dr. Jensen's work (at least with stuff previously written). Any professor who teaches an entire course around the Octavia Butler masterpiece 'Parable of the Sower' is OK by me!!!

Jerry Erwin
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +5
Here's how a recent blog-post begins:

The weeks go by, blink out, leave no trace. Each day flies by, a blur. As if my computer screen is the front window of my gas-guzzling Prius and I’m sitting up straight, shoulders hunched forward, white-knuckled, eyes scrunched, trying to navigate through driving, oily rain.

I troll the Internet, aiming to detail, assess, encapsulate this slow-motion catastrophe erupting a mile under our Mother’s fertile waters. When I’m lucky and a new gestalt clicks into place — lending political, ethical and/or spiritual meaning to possible long-term implications — the windshield wipers take another intermittent swipe, clear the field for a brief time. Then, once again, the blur. Is that my eyes blurring, are those my tears? Or is that reality.
Ann Kreilkamp
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +2
People who predict an ongoing and upcoming ecological catastrophe are under a great deal of stress, because we are compelled to warn people of impending disaster if we do not change our ways. We soon discover that most people do not like to hear messages of gloom and doom and will tune our warnings out. There is always a blessing and curse for those who have insight and foresight to get a further view into the future than most.

My background before i became an eco-activist (though sometimes just a slacktivist!) was in mental health, where i interacted with people struggling with all sorts of mental health issues (depression, paranoia, mania, OCD, anxiety, etc...). The environmental community as a whole mostly neglects to mention the importance of this issue when dealing with the ever increasing negative behaviors of corporations such as BP to name just one example.

Me personally am struggling with overwhelming feelings of hatred (yes, it is beyond simple dislike) towards corporate executives like BP's Tony Hayward. Were it up to me, i would give Mr. Tony Hayward a "trial by gators" where he would be dropped off into the bayous. The gator trial would be based upon how hungry the gators were due to lack of birds that were their previous food source. If many inland ranging birds were killed off by the enroaching oil spill, the gators would be starving and discover Mr. Tony Hayward would make a tasty treat.

Maybe my "trial by gator" idea would be considered slighty barbaric by most in the left, though it enters my thoughts on a regular basis. This could indicate some mental imbalances on my part, an inability to do anything real to protect the ecosystem becomes an escape into delusions of granduer where i would become a modern day Maximillian Robespierre (French Revolution, founder of guillotine) who takes the corporare CEOs to task for their eco-crimes.

Self-medication with alcohol and cannabis is how i deal with ever increasing feelings of rage towards CEOs like Tony Hayward, though this will not work much longer. Am going to need to seek counseling or end up becoming a monster obsessed with punishing CEOs for their eco-crimes. If the government is unwilling to regulate corporations like BP, then it is up to the people. How we accomplish this task remains to be seen, though it won't happen without a serious fight as the petrochemical corporate execs are unwilling to relenquish their power and control over energy sources willingly.

One last thought is for eco-activists to look into peer counseling, an idea that was started by union organizers in Seattle who struggled with management. Peer counseling involves two people taking turns talking to one another, each one talks for five minutes uninterupted. No advice, feedback or comments are given, each person simply takes the five minutes to express their feelings freely to the other person.
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +3
"Slouching towards Bethlehem..."

Sitting atop the endless volcano of grief, pt. 1.

I have been consciously processing my grief for many a moon now.
I don't use any drugs or alcohol to sedate myself, though I do struggle with smoking
tobacco and hope to leave it behind someday for good.
I use inner technologies to explore the inner terrains of my cosmos.
I have begun to suspect that not all of my grief is my personal grief, but an ontological
grief, a sadness which is an endless font belonging to the collective..both present and ancestral.

When the Ejya... volcano erupted in Iceland,
I erupted too. I lashed out at those close to me, flailing around in anguish,
and then fell into the thrall of the volcano, which expressed
my feelings so spectacularly on my behalf.

Then the Gulf began to bleed, to hemmorhage oil,
and the inverse volcano beneath the sea began to reflect the one in Iceland above the horizon,
and I thought," 'as above, so below', so it is". And my weeping increased.

I have wept so much that my prayer
robe is salty and stiff. I don't feel compelled to do anything at all except witness this, and be a hospice
worker to the earth and to humanity. I rest in the heart of God as often as I can, and often cry myself
to sleep. I feel very much alone in this and try not to be a "Debbie Downer" to those around me.

In other aspects of my life, I am very wholesome and my spirit is high and loving. I function as a normal parent of two older children who are good souls. I function as a worker, a wife, a musician, an artist, a yogi, a teacher, and a seeker.
I do not hate anyone involved in our undoing as a species. I have always felt I was born to be here for this transformational time.
The question is what is my role? A midwife or a hospice worker? I vacillate and also want to turn away and not be called upon to do anything, but be left alone. I love all creatures, all of creation, all mankind, without reservation. I will give myself up to do whatever I am called to do or to be. Right now, it seems I am just TO FEEL IT ALL and to LET IT ALL PASS THROUGH ME.

I enjoy keeping my finger on the pulse of the world by listening to people talk on certain forums online. I join in sometimes in the banter, but mostly I enjoy tasting their knowledge, their various personalities, coming to love them all as individuals. It helps me to keep my humanity intact. I am an artist, a creator, a Lover, and I need community. I wear many hats, working with my hands and teaching others when called to do so. I have felt badly that I am so aggrieved these last couple of years, and seem to have lost my earlier joy, but I wonder....Am I like a filter fish, a cultural clam lying in the seabed of humanity just letting collective sadness move through me?

I am having difficulty reciting the Lords Prayer lately....I cannot ask for forgiveness from our Father for what we have done to this Creation. I must allow myself to pray for forgiveness, and forgive others too, but it is hard right now.

I try to sit in silence as much as I can, and discern the patterns of creation around me. I have discovered that if I move into fear, I tend to spin my wheels and get nowhere fast. I'm trying to be a "still point" instead, and be contained, not casting blame or anger, but sourcing the mysterious origins of my own feelings, which run very deep. More than anything, I wish to be in love with the Beloved, to sing and move the breath, to laugh and dance with the Beloved in the garden, in His arms. I hope that is where I someday find a home, in His arms.

Godspeed you in your work, sir.

Alice Despard
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +2
I've been thinking about this for a year or two, and reading or hearing more people saying similar things. For me, there is a disconnect between my personal life, which is excellent, and my anguish over watching my siblings strangle my Mother to death. The metaphor I use is that it's like having a vertebrate out of joint--a constant nagging pain that never goes away because there is a kink in our culture which causes it to aggressively attack and take over every other culture, until the malignancy has by now overtaken virtually the entire Earth, with no signs of letting up. And our culture is really #$$%%^ crazy, incredibly toxic.
So far I have two ideas on what we need to do about it. No, three--because first is that we have to get OVER the idea that we can take "action" by clicking on websites, signing petitions, or contacting "our" representatives. Unless you've given tens of thousands of dollars to a politician, you HAVE no representatives in DC or your state capitol.
Once you stop waiting for Santa Claus, then what? Giving up can't be an option, no matter how bleak it looks, but I feel I am not able to come up with good ideas for collective action alone. I need brainstorming with others who have taken their heads out of the sand. Thus I have it in mind to host a gathering here in WV for people to help each other express the anguish (I'm a big believer in catharsis and think we can literally ex-press those emotions and thus free ourselves of them for awhile)--howling, screaming, crying, whatever we need to do to free ourselves of the anguish so that we can again access joy. I have the notion that effective action requires joy.
The second part of the gathering is for the intellectual part, the brainstorming about what we can do, mostly on a fairly local basis, to increase the odds for human and ecosystem survival through the coming storms. For those who gather elsewhere the answers would be different; here in West Virginia, action to defend Mother Earth almost certainly involves challenging Big Coal.
The other thing I'm doing is writing a romance novel set in 2024. I'm convinced that a missing piece of progressive activism is depicting a positive future--SHOWING people (whose powers of imagination have atrophied as a result of TV) that a world where nobody can drive and only small off-grid electric power exists, where government has broken down, not only might be survivable but could actually be a pleasanter world than the one we're so used to. I chose to make it a romance because I'm tired of preaching to the choir--lots of people (well, women) read romances and there's a better chance of getting published in that genre, perhaps.
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +3
As a long-term climate activist I see tentative steps by government and by individuals to respond to the impending collapse, but mostly a schizophrenic response. Individuals and decision makers are overwhelmed by business-as-usual living and governing. Change doesn't happen quickly. A hard lesson when crisis beckons urgent action.

For many years now I have been pressing the alert button and intellectually at least many people now understand the dilemma, but it seems we are hard wired not change culture too fast. The need for cultural stability is locked into our evolutionary responses. We even label ourselves as 'creatures of habit'.

At times (I feel that) I am the solitary passenger on the Titanic who foresees what is going to happen, but the passengers and crew are enjoying the cruise so much and all the other signals they have got is that the ship is unsinkable.

Of late I have told myself to relax, the brick wall isn't close enough yet and all the warnings in the world have little effect, even whilst oil spills and amazing climate events spill onto the front pages. Save my external energies for a time when things start to precipitate. I tell myself to do this but a sense of urgency won't let me relax entirely.

I think I need to mentally process how things will pan out 5 years from now and the best way to interact with society then. Then my energies can be much more fruitful perhaps? Or am I conceding defeat?

The one bright light is the rapidly growing global internet conversation on our impending future. There was no such live conversation a few years ago, where millions of people are being confronted by the news (to them) that a tumultuous change is about to happen. Even such discussion at high levels of government.

Pushing along this conversation is very important right now, even if we can't see our way through the mire. It's also mentally empowering to know that I share this dilemma now with millions. And I can also dispel any notion that all this is part of my wild imaginings, not real. Too many credible people are now saying the same thing.
Chris Harries
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +2
My emotions range from scared to numb to exhilarated.

I'm relieved to find that what I was taught in my younger days is a hollow reflection of the amazing diversity and possibilities of the Universe: study hard, work hard, be nice, get a steady job, marry, have kids, save for your retirement ... there's so much more to life than that.

I find it is very important invest time in studying my own inner life - my thoughts, emotions, responses - and I would recommend it to anyone.

The more I learn, the more I find that every other person has something to teach me. You might find it interesting to try that for a few months, if you haven't already ... pause, consider, try to see where they are on their journey, how things look to them, why they might be thinking, reacting, acting as they do ...

It's a cliche, but 'Question everything!' is an approach that is also teaching me something new every day.

Is driving a car your biggest 'eco-footprint'? Or is it what you choose to eat ... restaurant meals, meat-and-dairy heavy, out-of-season produce flown from fossil-fuel heated glasshouses, washed down with wine and coffee ....

So I have a lot of concerns for myself and my family, neighbours, friends, colleagues and fellow Earthlings ... many of whom are already suffering great physical pain ... but I'm also relieved to be able to see that the Emperor is naked, that Truman's Seahaven is just a TV studio ...
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +0
I passed the stage of anger, the stage of depression and the stage of fear. Now I do what I can. I do not pay attention to zombies consuming and multiplying around me. I do not drive more than necessary (to job and back). I struggle to leave the corporation I work in. I write a comprehensive book for years now and this will be what I have to say to the World. And I prepare myself for the future without modern comforts.
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +1
A little background on me first.
73 years old
living in a rural community (so there is hope sorta)
Careers have included a nuclear trained submarine sailor
30 years as a hydro plant technician /operator
skills I have practiced building houses, which included electrical, plumbing, heating , cooling
almost forgot I completed a Master Gardener Program (not that I claim to be all that Master.

I've lost track of the year I became aware of the Peak Oil problem and of course you can't be interested in that problem without discovering the same conditions in natural gas, water, weather, global warming, ocean deterioration, peak food.

I have 3 sons and two grandchildren and it's for them I try to prepare. I live in Northern Ca and my one huge weakness is a well that is 440 feet deep. If the grid goes down I'm dead meat.

Even if I put in a solar or wind powered well about a gallon a minute which would allow survival so it might get done some day.

In my county (80% republican) even if you work hard at it you either see their eyes glaze over or you get labeled a kook and you can see them tune you out.

That's the only thing that does depress me, the technology aspect is doable but the conversion of the unfaithful is just about hopeless
Robert Scheide aka The Grey Tiger
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +0
Carryin' on, but kind of worn out.

For whatever reason, I became galvanized around the issues of a structural collapse in our way of life back at the time of the first Earth Day, and I've been riding the waves of illumination and denial ever since. There seemed to be a period during the 70s (thanks to the first OPEC embargo) when at least some realization was filtering through to the general population, but it didn't last long, and soon most folks went right back to sleep. It's obvious now we have squandered any opportunity to mitigate the consequences of our short-sighted habits and behaviors. At the least, 40 years of having people respond to me like I was crazy are finally starting to taper off. I feel sad that so many missed chances have slipped by, but in a strange way also at last vindicated by reality. And especially sorry for the mess the kids will have to face, and how unprepared we have generally left them. I'm still cranking, but getting a little long in the tooth for this stuff. No one can do it alone.
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +0
All that is happening on this fragile planet satellite (massive pollution of air, soil and water; climate disruption; CO2 acceleration; depleted and collapsed ocean fisheries; corral reef destruction; acidic ocean waters; species extinction; global habitat destruction; fresh water scarcity; massive deforestation; ominous desertification of land masses; ozone depletion; arctic ice melt; widespread disease; global poverty; raging re-$ource wars... ad infinitum) is caused by the bizarre and totally insane DOCTRINE OF PERPETUAL GROWTH... of the human population and the global consumer economy on Earth, a closed looped system of FINITE 'espace' and FINITE resources. Let me reiterate and emphasize the word: FINITE! And perpetual growth in a closed looped system is NOT progress. It is cancer! Full blown cancer!

Humankind (a.k.a.: ewe-man-unkind) has less than twenty Earth years left to fix the problem. Failing to do so will result in a massive extinction event because WHERE THERE IS NO INSIGHT, THE PEOPLE PERISH!
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +2
I became aware of peak oil about three years ago and have taken practical steps to change. I am not a natural gardener or handyman, but I have been teaching myself these skills - I am amazed at how good home grown tastes (and how quickly it deteriorates) compared to shop bought. I have shared my vision of impending collapse at my church and there is a bemused tolerance for my ideas, but the myths of progress run so deep in the older generation - they just can't see what decline might look like in their imaginations.
What I wanted to contribute to this site is that the sense of impending destruction which I have had as long as I can remember was actually found in many early Christian communities who turned away from the dying culture of the Classical and founded simple communities where everything was shared. The Amish, in their quiet, unassuming way are. I believe, the future. I long to join them but family circumstance prevents me at present. Peter verbalizes his feelings in the New Testament so well when he says that since our world will soon be consumed by fire, shouldn't we live decent, upright and moral lives in preparation for the New World that awaits? There is time for weeping and a time for hope, now is the time for hope. When the King returns, we will look back and see that this world and all its sorrows was merely a short preparation for something so much better. See you all in the garden... Jon
Jon Stenner
report abuse
vote down
vote up

Votes: +0

Write comment
smaller | bigger

< Prev   Next >

Culture Change mailing address: P.O. Box 3387, Santa Cruz, California, 95063, USA, Telephone 1-215-243-3144 (and fax).
Culture Change was founded by Sustainable Energy Institute (formerly Fossil Fuels Policy Action), a nonprofit organization.
Some articles are published under Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107. See Fair Use Notice for more information.